How Ghana Did It

how_ghanaGeorge B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D. — When President Obama visited Ghana in July 2009, he said the choice was based on Ghana’s record on good governance. The irony was that the NDC government, which just took office just January 2009, obviously could lay claim to that model of distinction. More importantly, those familiar with Ghanaian history in the late 1980s and 1990s would recall that the P/NDC regime was most ferociously resistant to change. I should know because I was one of the architects of change in Ghana. Their credo was “continuity” and those who opposed them were brutally beaten, assaulted and crushed. This was the regime which dumped human waste in the offices of newspapers that were critical of its policies: Free Press in 1992, Ghanaian Chronicle in 1994 and Crusading Guide in 2000. The brutal antics of Fte./Lte. Jerry Rawlings were no different from Africa’s other tyrants.

There have been some 208 African heads of state since 1960. One would be hard pressed to name just 15 good leaders. Take this challenge yourself and see if you can name just 15 good leaders since independence. Even if you can name me 20 good leaders that would mean that the overwhelming majority – over 90 percent – were utter failures. Said the Nigerian student, Akira Suni, “Almost without exception, they (African leaders) are a big disgrace to humankind. Apart from indulging in their usual foolish rhetoric, what have they done to satisfy even the most basic needs of our people” (BBC News Talking Point, April 16, 2001). In an unusual editorial, The Independent newspaper in Ghana wrote: “Most of the leaders in Africa are power-loving politicians, who in uniform or out of uniform represent no good for the welfare of our people. These are harsh words to use on men and women who may mean well but lack the necessary vision and direction to uplift the status of their people (The Independent, Ghana, July 20, 2000; p.2).

The slate of post colonial leadership in Africa has been a disgusting assortment of military fufu-heads, “Swiss bank socialists,” crocodile liberators, quack revolutionaries, briefcase bandits and vampire elites. They amassed power to do only three things: To loot the treasury, to squash all dissent and to perpetuate themselves in office. The exceptions are shamefully few.

The crisis Africa faces is one of monumental leadership failure. Ideology is not particularly relevant. Both pro-West and pro-East leaders have failed their people. Collectively, these leaders have been responsible for the deaths of more than 18 million Africans since independence. This total is more than what Africa lost through the slave trade – from both the West and East African coasts. According to former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, corrupt African leaders have stolen at least $140 billion (£95 billion) from their people in the decades since independence (London Independent, June 14, 2002. Web posted at www. This type of leadership is a far cry from that which Africans have known in their own traditional systems for centuries. Name one African chief who looted the treasury for deposit in a foreign bank.

“Despotism does not inhere in the African tradition,” said the famed and late British economist, Lord Peter Bauer. Yet, they have become commonplace in post colonial Africa. As of today, of the 54 African countries, only 16 are democratic: Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa and Zambia. Even then, a strict definition of democracy would eliminate some of them. Thus, political tyranny is still the order of the day for the vast majority of Africans..

Despots have proliferated in post colonial Africa – not so much because of their ingenuity but because of the nature and character of the opposition forces arrayed against them. To be sure, African despots are crafty evil geniuses with a lot of firepower at their disposal. They are brutally efficient at intimidation, terrorism and mass slaughter. Using bribery, they easily co-opt their enemies with government positions and ministerial appointments. They are also very adept at the diplomatic game and spinning crackpot “democracy” theories.

Libya has no parliament, no military institutions, no political parties, no unions, no non-governmental organizations and holds no elections. Colonel Khaddafy describes this as a permanent revolution. “In the era of the masses, power is in the hands of people themselves and leaders disappear forever,” he wrote in the Green Book. But Libyans joke that after 40 years in power, Khaddafy shows no signs of disappearing any time soon (The New York Times, Feb 14, 2001; p.A1).

Just as nonsensical is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s concept of “revolutionary democracy.” Negasso Gidada was once part of the EPRDF inner circle and was Ethiopia’s first president under the current constitution, but resigned in a dispute with the ruling party leadership in 2001 to become an independent member of parliament. He says revolutionary democracy is a cover for dictatorship. “The ideology (evolutionary democracy), which EPRDF claims to follow from its name, is actually a concept of Marxist-Leninism, which was formulated by Lenin. It is a one party dictatorship.”

However, according to Newton’s Law of Physics, for every force in nature there is a counter-force. A force dominates either because a counterforce is non-existent or weak. African despots have prevailed for decades because the forces of opposition against them are weak or no-existent. These forces are in the main three:

The Intellectual/Professional class – professors, lecturers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, students, etc.
Opposition politicians,
Civil society groups — editors, journalists, church groups, etc.

These groups, collectively referred to as the chattering class, are often weak, underfunded and argumentative. It is exceedingly difficult to unite them for a common cause. During the struggle against colonialism, it was easy to unite them against white colonialists but not against today’s black neo-colonialists, who are no different – or even worse – in their brutal suppression of popular aspirations for freedom. The result is a conundrum faced by many African countries: A failed leadership that adamantly refuses to reform its abominable political and economic systems to provide more freedom for the people. And an array of opposition forces that is too weak to push for change or reform. But without reform, the country will implode and descend into a vortex of violence, chaos, and destruction: Somalia, Rwanda, Zaire, Liberia, etc. Virtually all of Africa’s failed states would have been saved had their leaders been willing to relinquish, share political power or implement real political reform.

Of the forces arrayed against African despots, the most stunningly disappointing have been Africa’s academics, professors, scholars and intellectuals. What is most amazing is that, there are professors with strings of Ph.D.s, including Agricometriology (the application of nuclear technology to the cultivation of cassava), who can’t even define “democracy” – let alone explain such simple concepts as “rule of law,” “accountability,” or “transparency.” Many of these African scholars and professors acted like intellectual prostitutes, selling off their integrity, conscience and principles to hop into bed with barbarous regimes. Then after being used and defiled, they were tossed aside or worse.

On a continent with nearly 900 million people, one would be hard pressed to name just 15 world-renowned African scholars, thinkers or intellectuals who are in the forefront pushing for change or freedom in Africa. A few come to mind: Professor Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, Professor Ali Mazrui of Kenya, Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela, Arch-Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Professor Wangari Maathai. Why so few? It is because of intellectual prostitution and collaboration.

Civil society groups have been hamstrung by repressive laws and restriction on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and press curbs. Such groups must be licensed by the government and their licenses can be revoked if they are too critical of the government. Even then, they must seek police permits before then can gather or hold a public rally. Such a restriction may apply to political parties and prevent them from holding political rallies. In Uganda, for example, a political party can legally be registered but it is illegal to hold a political rally of more than 6 people. Imagine.

However, the group that has been most brutally suppressed and traumatized in Africa has been the journalists and editors of the independent media. On May 3, 2007, participants of a workshop organized in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to celebrate World Press Freedom Day 2007, urged the government to adhere, through legislations, policy and practice, to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 29 of the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and to facilitate and invest in training and capacity building of journalists and media practitioners. These two Articles guarantee freedom of expression. The event was jointly organized by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Horn of Africa Press Institute (HAPI) with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UNESCO and the UN Country Team for Ethiopia.

The constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is often restricted in practice by invoking the 1992 Press Law regarding publication of false and offensive information, incitement of ethnic hatred, or libel in order to justify the arrest and detainment of journalists. Since the judiciary is not independent, journalists have few guarantees that they will receive a fair trial, and charges are often issued in response to arbitrary events or personal disputes. Laws provide for freedom of information, although access to public information is largely restricted in practice and often limited to state-owned media outlets.

Israel Sboka, publisher and editor-in-chief of the weekly Seife Nebelhal, and Samson Seyoum, former editor-in-chief of Ethiop, both of whom, under persecution, fled the country in December 2000. Professor Asrat Woldeyes and Ato Tesfaye, were gunned down by Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front assassins. Ato Assefa Maru, an unrelenting advocate of freedom of association and individual rights, shot in cold blood by security forces in May 1997. Alebatchew Goji, was beaten and tortured to death while in police custody in July 1994 while Mustafa Idris mysteriously disappeared in 1994.

The state controls all broadcast media and operates the only television station. A 1999 law permits private radio stations, and the first licenses were finally awarded to two private FM stations in the capital Addis Ababa in 2006. However, only one is operational, and is owned by a supporter of the ruling party. Following the November 2005 crackdown, only a limited number of newspapers that do not challenge the federalist constitution or ethnic make-up of the government was allowed to continue publishing without interruption. Authorities largely targeted the Amharic-language private press, banning or shutting down more than a dozen opposition-inclined papers that together accounted for more than 80 percent of total Amharic circulation. Several dozen journalists were arrested alongside politicians and were issued charges ranging from treason to subverting the constitution during the crackdown. Of the 15 journalists who were released during 2007, seven subsequently sought asylum abroad, and the Ministry of Information continued to deny many journalists who were arrested in the 2005 crackdown licenses to resume work on their respective publications, despite previous public assurances they would be granted. Several journalists remained imprisoned and journalists continue to be arrested on charges dating back several years.

Fewer than 10 papers are now publishing in the capital, Addis Ababa, compared to more than 20 in 2005. Most newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and to meet the Ministry of Information requirement of a minimum bank balance in order to renew their annual publishing licenses. In past years, access to foreign broadcasts has occasionally been restricted, a trend that continued in 2007 with the jamming of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America signals. Owing to an extremely poor telecommunications infrastructure, internet access is limited primarily to the major urban areas and was accessed by less than 0.5 percent of the population, but is growing in popularity with the proliferation of internet cafés. But here too the government is cracking down. The government monitors e-mail, and starting in 2006, access to some websites and blogs has been blocked, including news websites run by members of the Ethiopian diaspora who are critical of the government. The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation remains the only internet service provider during 2007.

The Opposition Parties

Quite frankly, the state of opposition parties in Africa leaves much to be desired. In many places in Africa, they are hopelessly fragmented, disorganized and prone to squabbling. In addition, many opposition party leaders lack vision and are driven more by personal ambition and lust for power than the cause for freedom. Even worse, their choice of tactics is often extremely poor.

It is extremely difficult and painful to criticize opposition leaders because of brutalities and the threats to their lives which they have endured. Many paid the ultimate price in their quest for freedom for their people. Nonetheless, the opposition in Ethiopia has been hobbled by a slew of problems which also beset other opposition forces elsewhere in Africa. They would be loathe to admit it but Ethiopian opposition forces have made some serious tactical errors and miscalculations. They are mainly three:

Splits, Divisions Within the Opposition Camp
Personal Ambition
Poor Choice of Tactics

Splits, Divisions Within the Opposition Camp

Nothing delights a tyrant more than to see that the forces arrayed against him are divided. It enables him to play one faction against the other, thereby strengthening his grip on power. Ethiopia has 91 registered opposition parties. Imagine. There have been too many instances in which tyrants have triumphed at the polls because of stupid bickering among opposition parties.

In Zimbabwe, squabbling within the MDC erupted into violence at the party’s Harvest House headquarters in May, 2005. It subsequently led to a split of the MDC into two factions: MDC-T (led by Tsvangirai) and MDC-m (led by Mutambara). This split spelt doom for opposition politics in Zimbabwe which will take a log time to recover. Exactly the same folly occurred in Kenya in 2007.

The Orange democratic Movement (ODM) was formed out of a grassroots people’s movement to push the 2005 Kenyan constitutional referendum. It was poised to challenge the corrupt and despotic rule of President Mwai Kibaki in the December 2007 presidential elections. But in August 2007 – just four months before the vote – ODM split into two: ODM-Odinga and ODM-Kenya. Imagine. The elections were held and stolen. Kibaki was sworn in barely two hours after the fraudulent results were announced. Violence erupted in the streets. Over 1,000 people were killed and more than 250,000 rendered homeless.

The same spectacle was witnessed in Zimbabwe after the March 29, 2008 elections in which the opposition presented a divided field. This folly was repeated in Gabon’s Sept 1, 2009 presidential election. The process was rigged to ensure that the son of the late Omar Bongo, who had ruled Gabon for 41 years succeeded his father. The son, Ali Ben Bongo, “won” with 41 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Andre Mba Obame, a former interior minister, won 26 percent) votes and the third candidate, Pierre Mamboundou won 25 percent. Obviously, if the two opposition candidates had formed an alliance they would have defeated the Bongo dynasty.

No one single individual or party can defeat an entrenched despot. It takes a coalition or an alliance of opposition forces. Here is the mathematics of it. The despotic incumbent always has some support, no matter how terrible his rule has been because of ethnic loyalty and patronage. Assume that the incumbent has only 30 percent popular support. This means that if you field 10 opposition candidates, they will DIVIDE the opposition vote and none of them will have enough to defeat the incumbent. In the case of Gabon, Ali Ben won with 41 percent of the vote, meaning if the two opposition candidates had fielded one candidate, the alliance candidate would have defeated him. I can tick off similar follies elsewhere in Africa:

In Kenya ‘s 1992 election, for example. President Daniel arap Moi won with only 37 percent of the vote over a divided field. The second place candidate won 32 percent of the total. “President Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya National African Union won 1.5 million votes in 1992, compared with a combined 3.5 million for the opposition” ( The Washington Times , June 22, 1995; p.A18). They repeated this same folly in the December 1997 elections. Kenya’s opposition parties numbered 26, which fielded 13 presidential candidates to challenge Moi. Imagine.
In Benin ‘s 1990 election (only a second runoff election defeated Mathieu Kerekou) and in the Ivory Coast where 42 opposition parties were registered in 1994, although there was some election rigging.
In Tanzania , 12 opposition parties were formed to challenge the ruling CCM’s monopoly lock on power in 1994.
In Zambia ‘s Dec 27, 2001, presidential elections, the ruling party’s (MMD’s) presidential candidate, Levy Mwanawasa, won with just 29 percent of the vote. “The 70 percent of voters who opposed Mr. Mwanawasa split their loyalty between 10 power-hungry rivals. The withdrawal of one or two of them would have helped Mr. Anderson Mazoka to victory” ( The Economist, Jan 5, 2002 ; p.38).

Beside playing into the hands of the despot, an opposition split also confuses voters and exacts a heavy public relations toll. Well-wishers, supporters and sympathizers outside Ethiopia – both foreign and African — become baffled: Which split or faction to support? To be sure, Zenawi is a monster but how can the opposition be taken seriously when it itself is split? And if the opposition can’t resolve its own differences, how can it resolve those with the Zenawi regime? Currently, 8 Ethiopian opposition parties and two prominent independent politicians are joining forces but they are too small.

Personal Ambition

One reason why it is difficult to united opposition parties into an electoral alliance is that too many opposition leaders are driven by personal ambition or lust for power. Each “educated” fool wants to be the next prime minister or president so it is impossible for them to unite. Instead, they stab each other in the back – the “pull-him-down” syndrome so that his rivals don’t take the seat he covets. Worse, some of the opposition leaders themselves are closet dictators, exhibiting the same dictatorial tendencies they so loudly condemn in the despots they hope to replace. Any wonder Africans have this saying: “We struggle very hard to remove one cockroach from power and then the next rat comes to do the same thing.

Poor Choice of Tactics

The first rule in any war is to “Know the Enemy.” One must know the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and devise one’s strategy accordingly. One does not fight an enemy on the turf on which he is strongest. One exploits his weaknesses. For example, Africa’s despots concentrate their security forces in their capital cities. Therefore, one does not call for mass protests in the capital cities where the security forces are ensconced. A smart strategy is that which stretches them geographically. Note that all rebel insurgencies start from the countryside where security forces are thinly spread.

Second, one goes to battle PREPARED. Too often, opposition parties scramble to take part in elections without an ounce of preparation. This requires ensuring that the playing field is level; the electoral commission is independent, all parties have access to the state media, an access to polling stations are open and free, etc. If these requirements are not met, ALL – not just one or a few – all opposition parties must boycott the elections. This has never been the case in Ethiopia, where, since 1991 Zenawi has controlled every aspect of the electoral process. Consider this: In the 2008 local council elections, opposition candidates won only 3 of more than 3.5 million contested seats. Was the playing field level? Without a level playing field and electoral reform,

Prime Minister Meles will win the 2010 election for another5-year term.

Part II

Ghana faced exactly the same problems in the 1990s: A divided and squabbling opposition, intellectual prostitution, weak civil society, state control of the media, etc. Rawlings’ era (1981 – 2000) was the darkest chapter in Ghana’s history. It set the country back economically. Fte./Lte. Jerry Rawlings first seized power in a 1979 military coup. His Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) stayed in office for only three months to “clean up house” in 1979. It organized a presidential election which was won by the late Hilman Limann but after barely two years in office, the Limann administration was overthrown by another Rawlings coup on December 31, 1981. He established the Provisional National defense Council (PNDC). At that time, the exchange rate was 2.85 cedis to the dollar and income per capita was $410. In 2000, the exchange rate was 7,200 cedis to the dollar. Back in 1981, Ghana’s income per capita was $410; it was $360 when he left office in 2000 – 19 years later. Even the World Bank, which pumped more than $4 billion into Ghana, said in 2001 that it was a mistake to declare the country an “economic success story.” The difficulties the country faced forced the Kufuor administration to place Ghana in the HIPC intensive care unit.

On democracy and human rights, the P/NDC record was abysmal. When asked about handing over power, Rawlings famously retorted: “Hand over to whom?” According to Amnesty International, more than 200 people disappeared during the Rawlings era. Over 1 million Ghanaians fled to “Agege” (Nigeria) only to be sent back in 1984. Kwesi Pratt, Jr, managing editor of the political magazine, The Weekly Insight, was an early victim of Rawlings’ brutality. He charged that:

Between December 1981 and December 1984, gangs closely associated with the Rawlings regime embarked upon a killing spree. They butchered as many as 246 Ghanaians for the only reason that they dared to differ politically with the self-proclaimed messiah, Flt./Lte. Jerry John Rawlings. Those who were gruesomely murdered included academics, priests, soldiers, policemen, judges and even independent-minded revolutionary cadres. Kwesi Pratt, a fierce critic wrote:

“I can bear testimony to some of these gruesome murders which took place during my detention at Gondar Barracks in the early days of the Rawlings dictatorship. Soldiers loyal to the dictatorship came to the Recce Guardroom every afternoon and selected their victims, who were told to say their last prayers because they would be taken to Agege (Air Force Station) at mid-night. Then at mid-night, the soldiers drove armored vehicles to the Guardroom, picked up their victims and drove away. None of these victims has been seen since then¼In one instance in June 1983, Warrant Offier Adjei Boardi, then a member of Rawlings Provincial National Defense Council, ordered that 6 people who were being held in cells at the Border Guards headquarters be released for ‘fresh air.’ As the six detainees, including Kwame Adjimah, a member of the June 4 movement, stepped out of the their cells, Warrant Officer Adjei Boardi opened fire with his AK 47 assault rifle and killed them all.” (The African Observer, July 19 – August 1, 1999; p.7).

The 19-year Rawlings reign was characterized by extreme cruelty, savage brutality and rampant corruption. Upon seizing power in a 1981 coup, Rawlings, a self-styled Marxist revolutionary, declared a “holy war” against bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, and proceeded to impose the most stringent controls on the economy. Market women who violated price controls were stripped naked, whipped, their heads shaven and wares confiscated. In addition, scores of markets, portrayed by Rawlings as “dens of profiteers,” were razed to the ground.

In the 1980s, there was little opposition to the PNDC rule because what opposition there was had been brutally crushed. In 1989, the former Soviet Union collapsed, which provided new energy to pro-democracy forces in Africa. Winds of change swept across Africa, toppling a few long-standing autocrats, such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

Those of us abroad warned Western donors against giving money to African dictators. In fact, in 1991, I testified before the U.S. Congress that, after 1992, any loan given to an illegitimate African government constitutes “odious debt,” which the African people shall not consider themselves liable to repay because it was contracted without their consent.” Pressure also built from other sources and Western donors began to add “political conditionality.” In 1992, for example, Western donors withheld aid to Kenya and Malawi until they established multi-party democracy. Facing mounting pressure from both domestic and external sources, the PNDC had no choice but to implement multi-party democracy.

Reluctantly, the Rawlings regime unilaterally defined the modalities of the transition process and set up a National Commission on Democracy (NCD). The Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which went to Ghana under a grant from U.S. AID in May 1992, wrote in their report that, “The transition to democratic rule in Ghana is a process characterized by control. Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and the PNDC remain the obvious source of political initiatives, retaining their claim to the last word in decisions that affect the forward movement of Ghanaian policy” (Ghana — Pre-Election Assessment Report, IFES, 1992, 2).

This is exactly the same tactic being employed by the EPRDF regime.

At about the same time in South Africa, the whites and blacks had sat down together to hammer out a transition program under CODESA (Convention for Democratic South Africa). CODESA was not controlled by one side. Oddly, Ghana drew up a program and constitution for multiparty democracy without the participation of political parties, which were then banned. Not surprisingly, almost every important group in Ghana opposed the work of the NCD. In particular, the West Africa magazine wrote: “The NCD is made of persons hand-picked by the PNDC and is chaired by the Vice-Chairman of the PNDC, Justice D.F. Annan. It is not democratically representative or accountable. Members of the NCD have regularly expressed partisan views on what should or should not be part of the country’s political system. Many have expressed doubts that such a body can be expected to impartially collate and distil views of Ghanaians” (13-19 August 1990, 2270).

Despite these criticisms and misgivings about the NCD, the PNDC charged ahead and established a Consultative Assembly to draft Ghana’s constitutional proposals for the Fourth Republic. Then Sections 33, 34 and 36 were clandestinely inserted into the constitution at the eleventh hour without any debate to give the PNDC blanket and perpetual immunity from “any official act or omission [committed] during the administration of the PNDC.” A regime that preached the gospel of “accountability,” “transparency,” and “probity,” according to the World Bank, suddenly refused to be held to the same tests. Ghanaians abroad were disenfranchised at a time when other Africans could all go to their embassies and vote.

There were numerous other problems. The voter register was riddled with inaccuracies. The list suffered from multiple entries, inconsistent name order, failure to record corrections, and ghost entries. No attempt was made to purge the list of voters deceased since 1987 or rectify the other problems.

Despite all these, Rawlings ran for president in 1992, arguing that his previous 11 years in office did not count toward the 2-term or 8-year Constitutional stipulation. He “won” the 1992 presidential election that was so marred by irregularities that the opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections. The result was the establishment of a de facto one-party state in Ghana.

Rawlings subsequently won re-election in 1996. Though the vote was not as flawed as in 1992, it entrenched the “Rawlings model of self-succession” in the West Africa, which has experienced more military takeovers than any other African region: A military adventurer seizes power in a coup, organizes fraudulent elections to ward off nosy Western donors and returns himself to power as a “civilian president.” West Africans derided this as “civilianization of military rule.” By 1998, military despots had successfully shed their uniforms and donned civilian clothes as presidents in 10 out of the 15 West African countries.

Rawlings, however, was only half the problem; the other half was the opposition. Recall that, according to Newton’s Law of Physics, for every force in nature there is a counter-force. A force dominates either because a counterforce is non-existent or weak. Rawlings and other African despots dominated the political scene because the opposition was weak or non-existent. Ghana’s opposition was worse than useless.

One of their most unimaginative tactic was the issuance of a series of ultimatums during the Rawlings’ era. More than 15 such ultimatums were issued between 1982 and 1992. “Hand over by such-and-such a date, or else……” Deadlines passed and nothing happened. An opposition leader, who does not have the means of enforcing a deadline, should not issue one. Otherwise, the despotic regime will laugh it off. Besides, it is irresponsible to issue a deadline and not follow through with credible action because it puts the whole population at risk. The paranoid government will tighten security as the deadline approaches, arresting people on the flimsiest shred of suspicious evidence.

The second most useless method of ousting a military dictatorship is through “mass action” such as public demonstrations, rallies and national strikes. Mass demonstrations are not only irresponsible but also betray functional illiteracy of opposition leaders. Just because these strategies worked in the 1950s against the white colonialists does not mean they will also work against black neocolonialists. The problem is lack of imagination and inability on the part of the opposition to adapt strategies to suit changing circumstances. Today, thanks to advances in modern weaponry, the military can mow down a crowd of 10,000 people in an instant. So why present the military with a huge mass of demonstrators, concentrated in one spot?

In the post-colonial era, no military regime has been removed through mass demonstrations. Three ways have emerged. The first is through armed insurrection: Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia and Uganda. This is not to be recommended since the cost is prohibitive: destruction of the country, the loss of thousands of lives and the production of refugees. The second is through a palace coup but then that does not get rid of the military regime (for example, Acheampong overthrown by Akuffo, Traore overthrown by Toure in Mali). The third is when the soldiers themselves hold elections and return to the barracks.

Massive demonstrations against military regimes may work indirectly but are chancy, costly and ineffective. They result in deaths: 38 in Mali; 26 in Togo; over 200 in Zaire. The deaths often elicit both domestic and international condemnation which puts further pressure on the regime to reform. But the outcome is not predictable. Out of the chaos and confusion, another military adventurer may seize power, as in Mali.

Mass protests or action – as in people’s power revolution in the Philippines in 1989 or the velvet revolution in the Czech Republic in 1992 — have seldom dislodged civilian goat-heads in Africa. In recent years, security forces have attacked and crushed demonstrators in Ethiopia (Sept 2005), Kenya (Dec 2007), and Zimbabwe (March 2008).

Ghana’s opposition parties exhibited all the weaknesses that afflicted Africa’s opposition parties: divisions, disunity, personal lust for power and the choice of poor tactics. When the ban on party politics was lifted in 1992, 9 opposition parties emerged. They were impossible to unite them into an alliance. They were split not only along ideological lines but also within the same ideology. Ghana has had two political traditions: The Nkrumah tradition after Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah and the Danquah-Busia tradition that opposed the Nkrumah tradition. The mantle for the latter tradition was taken by the New Patriotic Party (NPP). However that of the Nkrumah tradition was claimed by 4 opposition parties in 1992. The challenge we faced in Ghana was how to unite the two traditions into a formidable opposition alliance to challenge Rawlings’ National Democratic Congress (NDC, which was derived from PNDC with the “P” lopped off). But we could not unite those in the Nkrumahist camp, let alone unite them with the NPP (Danquah-Busia camp). The squabbling among the two camps was endless.

We tried various tactics to knock some sense into the bickering opposition leaders. We threatened and warned them that their divisions, incompetence and squabbling were adding greatly to the suffering of Ghanaians and the people would hold them accountable. We tried to set up a Supra National Council, made up of 6 eminent and well-respected Ghanaians whose voices would be heeded by all opposition leaders to end their bickering. Outside Ghana, democracy activists, including myself, formed the Committee of Concerned Citizens of Ghana (CCCG). Opposition leade4rs were coming to the U.S. and Canada to raise funds. We made it plain to them that they won’t get a penny from us if they didn’t unite against Rawlings.

The breakthrough came in March 1995 when the Rawlings regime attempted to impose a new tax (VAT) on Ghanaians. Denounced as a “vampire tax,” tens of thousands of Ghanaians poured into the streets in a massive “”Kume Preko” (You might as well kill me”) demonstration. Security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 4 of them. But pro-democracy forces weren’t deterred. Other demonstrations were held in other cities across the country. The organizer of the first demonstration was Dr. Charles Wereko-Brobbey, who was dubbed “Tarzan.” CCCG worked with Wereko-Brobbey to set up a corresponding organ in Ghana called the Alliance for Change (AFC) in 1995, of which I also became a member in order to facilitate interface between the two. The rules were laid out clearly from the outset. No member of either group (CCCG or AFC) was to use the group as a platform to advance his own or partisan ambition. All must hold the nation’s interest supreme above all sectarian or partisan interests. Unfortunately, Dr. Wereko-Brobbey broke this covenant when he tried to use the AFC to advance the political career of Dr. Kwame Pianim. The AFC disintegrated in 1996 – just 8 months before the elections. Needless to say, the disunited opposition parties suffered a severe drubbing at the 1996 polls.

A renewed effort was made to rope the squabbling opposition parties into an alliance for the 2000 elections. We were aided by the deteriorating economy. By the year 2000, Ghana’s economy was in a coma and the World Bank-sponsored Economic Recovery Program (ERP) a miserable failure. Inflation raged at 60 percent; unemployment hovered around 30 percent; interest rates had reached 50 percent and the currency, the cedi, had virtually collapsed. In 1981, the exchange rate was 285 cedis to the dollar and income per capita was $410. In 2000, the exchange rate was 7,200 cedis to one dollar and income per capita $360.

Fed by huge expenditures on security, corruption and wanton wastes, government expenditures had careened out of control. The distinction between government and Rawlings’ ruling party (National Democratic Congress, NDC) funds had vanished and looting was open and brazen. Mr. Vincent Assisseh, the press secretary of the ruling party, built a multi-million dollar empire, acquired several mansions and a fleet of expensive automobiles. Even Rawlings himself, the Marxist revolutionary, cruised around in a Jaguar convertible.

At least 40 percent of World Bank loans and Western aid were squandered. According to Goosie Tanoh, who broke with the ruling regime to form his own National Reform Party, “many grants from Japan, Canada, USA and Britain, given to NDC party functionaries, were misapplied or misappropriated” (The Ghanaian Chronicle, August 14, 2000).

The regime never accepted responsibility for its failures, choosing to blame foreigners and “external factors” for the country’s worsening economic crisis and even corruption. At the United Nations General Session in New York on September 8, President Jerry Rawlings blamed Western countries for much of the monumental corruption in Africa, saying they have a responsibility to curb the menace so as to promote good governance on the continent (Panafrican News Agency, Sept 8, 2000).

Ghanaians, however, never bought this self-serving claptrap. Fed up with rampant corruption and years of economic mismanagement, they vowed electoral retribution at the polls scheduled for Dec 7, 2000. They told the opposition parties that they cared less who was the head of the alliance ticket and would even vote for a goat if it led the opposition alliance. It was a clear message to the opposition parties to end their bickering; else, there would be severe retribution. But the Rawlings regime was determined as ever to hang on to power — out of fear that, else, its gory past misdeeds might be exposed. But any attempt by the regime to sabotage or manipulate the electoral process to keep itself in power would have triggered an implosion. Three months before Ghana’s vote, Ivory Coast had erupted into violence in October 2000 after General Robert Guie stole the elections there – violence that ultimately engulfed the country in a civil war.

Thus, a high state of tension and anxiety greeted Ghana’s Dec 7, 2000 elections. Debarred by the Constitution for a third term, Rawlings had handpicked his vice-president, Prof. John Atta Mills, as his successor. Though they were marred by violence in which 53 people died, the vote count was generally fair and the opposition won control of parliament. But since none of the presidential candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote and a run-off was scheduled for Dec 28. On that day, Rawlings unleashed his military thugs to intimidate voters from casting their ballots. Roadblocks were set up to prevent voters from going to the polls. Commandos invaded Kumasi, the stronghold of the Kufuor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), to beat up voters. Gun shots were fired and several opposition MPs were assaulted.

When the results started coming in the next day, the opposition candidate, John Kufuor had a comfortable lead over the incumbent vice-president, Prof. John Atta Mills. Would the ruling NDC relinquish power? The country was sitting on pins. In Africa, incumbents generally don’t concede defeat. They are generally removed through military coups, rebel insurgencies or assassination. Of the 190 African heads of state since 1960, only 20 relinquished power voluntarily. Of this number, less than 10 stepped down in a democratic transition; the bulk simply retired after long years in office.

At 7:00 pm, Vice-President Mills telephoned Kufuor to concede defeat and the country heaved a collective sigh of relief. As Albert Nuamah described it, “Ghanaians burst out of their rooms in jubilation. In some places like Tamale in the North both the NPP and NDC members were on the streets jointly jubilating. What a relief! Ghana has been spared great agony!” (The Ghanaian Voice, January 15-21, 2001; p.4). Thus, Ghana managed to pull itself back from the brink.

What or Who Saved Ghana?

The first was the media – in particular the FM radio stations. Notable among them were Joy FM, Peace FM and Radio Universe, to mention a few. In Ghana’s December 2000 elections, the private FM stations were crucial in enforcing transparency. “Live radio, it turned out,is a better and cheaper monitor of elections than the local and international observer teams, whose reports will emerge only after the battle has been lost and won” said The Economist regarding Ghana’s election (“Ghana: Taking Part,” The Economist, December 16, 2000; p.54). As Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, also pointed out, the four most democratic countries in West Africa today — Benin, Ghana, Mali and Senegal — all have private, flourishing FM talk radio stations. “Let’s stop sending Africa lectures on democracy. Let’s instead make all aid, all I.M.F.-World Bank loans, all debt relief conditional on African governments’ permitting free FM radio stations. Africans will do the rest,” he wrote (“Low Tech Democracy,” The New York Times, May 1, 2001; p.A13). The print media also played an important role: The Ghanaian Chronicle, Free Press, Crusading Guide, Daily Guide, to mention a few.

Four individuals also played important roles in easing Rawlings’s NDC out of power. The first was former U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. While hop-scotching around the globe to put out fires, imagine the embarrassment of learning that his own country was on fire! He promised Rawlings the post of a special U.N. envoy on malaria if he stepped down peacefully.

The second person was former Nigerian president, Gen (rtd) Olusegun Obasanjo. He detested Rawlings with every fiber in his body largely because Rawlings was a friend to the late General Sani Abacha (“The Butcher of Abuja”) who tossed Obasanjo into jail in 1996. Obasanjo did much to help the opposition in Ghana.

The third was the late and former president of Togo, Gnassingbe Eyadema. He closed Togo’s border in Dec 2000, preventing Rawlings from importing Ewes, his ethnic group, into Ghana to vote for him. The first country the triumphant President Kufuor visited after his inauguration was Togo to express his gratitude to Eyadema. Kufuor was severely rebuked for doing so since Eyadema was himself a military dictator.

The last but not the least person was Professor Atta-Mills himself. He refused to go along with Rawlings’ diabolical plan. In the event of an electoral defeat, the plan was to call for a national recount – a la Florida – and declare a state of emergency. But by conceding defeat on the air to Kufuor, Professor Atta-Mills pulled the rug from underneath the plan.


Ethiopia cannot leave the task of establishing true democracy to only the politicians or opposition party leaders. A body which is apolitical needs to be established to hold the country’s interest supreme – above all ethnic, political or sectarian interests. This body must be made of prominent Ethiopians with credibility who have no interest in running for president.
To make democracy work, a smart opposition is needed – not the rah-rah noisy type that chants “Zenawi Must Go.” A smart opposition does not fight a despotic regime on the turf on which it is strongest. It exploits its weaknesses. What are the weaknesses of the EPRDG regime? Scratching your head?
  Every tyrannical regime is kept in office by certain props. Identify these props and sever them methodically. The external props come in the form of foreign aid and loans. Opposition leaders must draft a letter to foreign donors and creditor that any loan to the illegitimate EPRDF regime will constitute “odious debt” and will not be paid back. Back in 1990 “the main opposition parties warned donor countries and agencies that aid given during the rule of President Hussain Mohammad Ershad would not be paid back.”

“The military junta of President Ershad is plundering public money, and to make that up every year new taxes and levies are being imposed…People will not pay the loans back,” Sheik Hasina Wajed, who heads the Awami League, told a rally here. Donors should help a representative government and not “a government run with the power of the gun,” she said, adding that proper accounts of aid funds are not available. Begum Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, accused Mr. Ershad and his cronies of hoarding aid in foreign bank accounts and said ‘people will not bear the pressure of paying back the debt,” (The Washington Times, Nov. 7, 1990; p.A2). Two weeks later, the military government of President Ershad collapsed when aid donors withheld funds.

Internal props are the intellectual prostitutes. Go after them. Warn them that they will be held intellectually accountable. Send them letters and publish their names at a web site.

The “Velvet,” Rose,” and “Orange” revolutions succeeded in bringing change to the Czech, Georgia, and Ukraine republics because the mass protesters had at least one key institution on their side. There are six critical institutions: an independent and free media; an independent judiciary (for the rule of law), an independent central bank; an independent electoral commission, a neutral and professional armed security forces; and efficient civil service. The Rose revolution in Georgia in Nov 2003 succeeded because security forces did not fire on the street protesters. Opposition leaders smartly had women lead the protests, who handed roses to the soldiers to win their sympathy; hence, rose revolution. The Orange Revolution of Ukraine in Nov 2004 succeeded because the opposition forces had the judiciary and some private media on their side. Ukraine’s Supreme Court annulled the election results. Ghana’s revolution succeeded in 2000 because the opposition forces had formed an alliance and also had the FM radio stations on their side. Obviously, Ethiopia’s opposition forces should have at last one key institution on their side: Either the media, the judiciary or the electoral commission. They should consider establishing pirate radio stations in neighboring countries.

Finally, good luck.


The writer, a native of Ghana, is a Distinguished Economist at American University and President of the Free Africa Foundation. His new book is Africa Unchained (Palgrave/MacMillan).

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